Sixteen years on the run. In the end Mladic came quietly

Vesna Peric Zimonjic on the manhunt that led to a quiet rural village

So after all, he didn't go down fighting. When the knock finally came on his door, 16 years after an arrest warrant was issued, the man who boasted that a court in The Hague would never see him alive went quietly, without fuss and in handcuffs.

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Ratko Mladic was finally picked up by Serbian security forces at 5.30am yesterday in the village of Lazarevo in rural northern Serbia. He was staying in a yellow-brick house with agricultural equipment in the back garden that belonged to his cousin, Branko Mladic.

Neighbours never saw him around. When he finally emerged, he was pale from a lack of sunlight and looking older than his 69 years, according to Rasim Ljajic, a Serbian minister working with the war crimes tribunal. One arm was paralysed, according to Serbia's B-92 radio. DNA tests proved it was him – even if his papers said that he was Milorad Komadic. "It was over quickly," said one man, named Djordje. "We often joked that he must be here, because his relative lives in the village." Another said that he lived "like a poor man".

The house had been under surveillance for a couple of months, according to unconfirmed reports. Mladic's wife Bosiljka – who had tried to declare him dead last year – and his son said that they were "shocked and surprised" at the news that ended years of searching, false sightings and obstruction by the Serbian authorities. They had claimed they did not know where he had been hiding.

However, in the early days when he was "wanted", he had retired to a life of enforced rustic domesticity in a pine wood in Han Pijesak, eastern Bosnia, with his wife and watched over by loyal followers. He kept bees and a small flock of goats which he named after some of the Western leaders who had been his nemeses, including Madeleine Albright.

While former strongman Slobodan Milosevic was in power, he attended football matches and did not hide much despite the indictment against him. There were sightings at the Belgrade racecourse and in a busy restaurant. His photo adorned calendars sold on Belgrade street corners and hung in Serbian bars, while "Wanted" posters were conspicuous by their absence.

But when Milosevic was ousted in 2000, the will to catch Mladic changed, and he has not been seen openly in public for a decade. It is believed that hard-core nationalists who remained in the Serbian army and police after the downfall of Milosevic remained loyal to Mladic and spared no effort to hide him.

It was also widely believed that those remnants were responsible for leaks in the investigations about Mladic's whereabouts. Serbian chief war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said last year that "Mladic slipped from our hands" back in 2005. "We almost had him," he said, adding that leaks and sabotage by the people whose task it was to arrest Mladic led to many similar failures.

After a landlord came forward saying he had once rented an apartment to the general in the capital, Serbia made the embarrassing admission that Mladic had indeed been hiding there as late as 2006, when, it said, he vanished without trace. But as the European Union and Nato piled pressure on Serbia's reformist government to arrest them, the long list of those at large began to shorten until the elusive Mladic became the prime remaining obstacle to Serbia's EU membership hopes.

The real turning point came in 2008 with the sudden arrest of Radovan Karadzic, barely recognisable with a beard and long hair, posing as a new-age guru. He had been living quietly in Belgrade under a false name. The pace of the hunt was stepped up.

There were numerous raids. In November 2008, a private factory and the home of its owner were searched in the central town of Valjevo. In 2009, international police raided the homes of Mladic's sister and sister-in-law in the eastern, Serbian-controlled part of Sarajevo.

Still a year ago, his family tried to demand that he be declared officially dead. That move failed. And yesterday he was found, very much alive.